Interview prepared with Agata Siemionow as part of the Illinois Institute of Technology Dean's Lecture Series. Photography Credits: Illinois Institute of Technology
Grou Serra It seems like your work is always very personal. How do you relate it to the general field of photography today?
Erwin Olaf Whether you are an artist or architect, your work should always be personal. There are 7 billion of us on earth nowadays, if you want to be a person that adds to this world, or even create the illusion of it, you must stay very close to your personality and character. Otherwise, it has no use and it is as though you are not there, not trying to create. The older I get, the more I feel the need to stay closer to who I am and what I think. I try to get the message of my thoughts, be it good or bad, into my work - my aesthetics, political opinions, youth, it does not matter what it is but it should be there otherwise somebody else can make it as well.
Vedran Mimica In the 90’s, at the Berlage Institute we asked Rem [Koolhaas] “Okay Rem, so is this good or bad?” and Rem answered “You guys don’t understand anything, we are not beyond good and bad..” So now what you are saying is that the personal has to be in the work - and that something personal is your understanding of quality.
Erwin Olaf True. But there are also instances where you don’t understand the quality, or have completely different opinion about quality. That can add to our world also, as long as you recognize and have your signature. In my early work, my signature is extremely strong because I was insecure, unconfident and perhaps did not understand or have knowledge about quality. The signature must be present, but it can be negative if expressed too strongly. I feel that in my earlier work, when I photographed someone in a hat, or a woman with gloves and they have to be on a dustbin, I question myself later on my decisions, but that is probably me growing to be more mature.
Wiel Arets Can you speak a little more about the personal?
Erwin Olaf That is a very deep question because I don’t know so much about who I am. When I meet someone of even when I look in the mirror, I see riddles. There was a television program in Netherlands who asked me for a three hour segment, I thought three hours was a huge amount - when they asked me for that I thought that was incredibly personal. I almost had to cry and be angry in it, but later on when I read a review it had said that I was “rather shallow”.
Wiel Arets Have you been on a search to find who you are? Can who you are be found in your work?
Erwin Olaf I think everybody creates to find themselves. “Who am I” is the question of life. I don’t want to sit and think about that, I want to make something whilst I find out who I am. The international advertising industry is dominated by the white race until recently- which is only 20 years ago, I always thought it was so stupid. I became internationally known in 1998 by a photograph I have done for Diesel Jeans - it was of an old lady grabbing an old man by the balls. That picture went on to win many major awards, and my career as an advertising photographer skyrocketed. In the castings for my projects, I always tried to cast as multiracial and multicultural participants as I could. These were the little things I tried to do, but these proposals were always rejected by the campaigns. Even in Asia, Africa or even the USA, campaigns wanted models with blonde hair and blue eyes. I saw the change and wanted my personal opinions to be reflected in the advertising world. Who I am and what I think can be quite different sometimes.
Evelyn Wong You rely on advertising shock value with high art credibility. How have you approached shock-factor in your work over the years?
Erwin Olaf [Laughs] I am coming from the seventies in Europe. The first few photographers that I thought were fantastic were Robert Mapplethorpe and Joel-Peter Witkin, compared to them, I am a cotton ball. My shock value is nothing. I didn’t make my early work for the world, I made it for myself and my group of friends. I came from a little town - Utrecht, my first friends were already posing nudes in art school, I was so surprised! I started out as a journalistic photographer but I didn’t like it, I loved connecting with people in the night life. I started to withdraw from nightlife and photographed people from the nightlife in my studio- in a staged scene, in my fantasy. There was a door lady who had beaten up five boys, I thought if she could have done that she could also lift a boy over her head. So I approached her for this idea she agreed but she said it would have to be nude, so this idea actually came from her. I was following the mentality of my peers. When my photos went public, many international audience said that it was shock photography. The fake Princess Diana from the Royal Blood series had so much comments on English and Australian newspapers, people called me an asshole, but for me it was only a coincidence and a joke. You can never forecast what will happen to a project. As soon as you plan to make a shock photo, you make shit, you make kitsch. I always made pictures from who I am, and at that moment I was angry and partly naive. A lot of people are getting hung up about bodies, skin and sex, but it is just who we are.
Grou Serra You said that you don’t do it on purpose, but is this technique an answer or critique to today’s image based culture and culture of consumption?
Erwin Olaf A big change has come with the digital age, many people use shock value to get attention. I made those pictures in my youth when I was still quite naive, and I am still very influenced by my youth. My mentality towards bodies and sex comes from my upbringing in the seventies. I would not use the same tools anymore to photograph as I have in the eighties as I have lost that naivete, I now know better of how to shock, but that makes it empty and kitsch. If I have an idea I have to do it as it in my mind, if it turns out shocking to someone, it is a pity. I am never thinking that I want to shock people. In “Skin Deep”, I have come back to the subject of skin and bodies after 25 years because it was so misunderstood. I wanted to make something to show my love toward the human form and movement. To me, I will not hide the genitals of the model if the composition of the photo is good, there is nothing wrong with it.
Grou Serra You create highly stylized looks in photography to draw in the viewer by luring it through “beauty”. In your opinion, How can beauty be objective?
Erwin Olaf Objective? Beauty is incredibly subjective. But there is a general, median opinion on what is beautiful, I use that for my series. “Grief” was a series that I use beauty to bring people into my world. It is about the first tear, I wanted to tell a fairytale about sorrow. I needed beautiful architecture, houses and beautiful women who had heard something terrible. I can drag you into my world within this beautiful setting then I can come and slap you in the face. I want to add something that is different from the rest, there is already so much sorrow in this world. That series made me realize that I have matured, I don’t need all the arguments to make a beautiful photograph.
Wiel Arets There are a lot of photographers who want to be pure, withstanding change, and you are the opposite? You started to manipulate your photos, like in the film world everything is manufactured.
Erwin Olaf Yes that is very much my source. I am also interested in the stage world. Nowadays my work is about what adds to the stories, the details such as the distance between the phone and the furniture, whether the model is cross legged or not, what can these add to the story? For example in “Rain” and “Hope” which is based on the aesthetics of the fifties in America, there are details in each set that adds to the narrative before the first tear, which is about the action-reaction moments during the time when the Western world was paralyzed by the news of 9/11. I wanted to do something very positive like Norman Rockwell to celebrate the good times of American freedom, so I had these teenagers in a dance hall but it was so terribly kitsch. At a certain point I told them to stop moving and realized my shot, in the moment between action and reaction. I disagree that I am only interested in beauty, I think that everybody is beautiful. Many times in documentary photography, the changed human forms such as the obese body is humiliated and studied but I am not interested in that. I think there is beauty in everybody.
Grou Serra How does detaching your audience from current time and referencing the past allow you to better discuss contemporary issues?
Erwin Olaf I am now slowly going towards my interest in this time. In Keyhole that could be from 1920’s or in a timeless setting, my starting point was the idea of our disconnection to each other. You are now here listening to me but elsewhere there are people making love, having a fight, stabbing each other, yet we do not know or care. I wanted to discuss that, but when it is set in this time it gets too personal. So I use the beautiful aesthetics from the 1920’s and built this elaborate set of rooms next to each other. The picture and double rooms looked too “one-on-one”. There was a little boy who was waiting to be shot, he was so bored that he turned his head to look into a keyhole into the other set. I thought this was it! He was looking into another world from his own. I like to use the technique of translation of the intriguing subjects of our time, into something far more interesting and poetic. The more layers a piece of art have, the longer people would be intrigued by it. I designed an installation for this project that you need to peek through two keyholes to see a man or woman holding a young boy on his or her lap. What happens in our minds when we see the them doing exactly the same choreography? The idea is extended to be deeper when it is detached from our time.
Grou Serra Can you talk a little bit more about how shooting almost exclusively in constructed sets help your agenda other than control?
Erwin Olaf I can tell the story more precisely. The inside of any character you see is built up by the outside. I use the surrounding that is completely controlled by me to add to the person or an action, I can move walls and furniture to control the atmosphere of lives of the characters. I use it also for research on what I want to tell, there is a quality of silence in the sets that cannot be found in reality. There is a time constraint with locations in reality as you have to be very convinced to enter the location, but I need longer time because I sometimes don’t know what I want out of the project. Although, I might be at the end of this cycle because I have worked on location in “Berlin”. The high ceilings and decorative details in the buildings in Berlin allowed me to create the lighting I had in mind easily. Did that answer your question?
Grou Serra Can you talk about the use of a fantasized reality? How does that help with the message?
Erwin Olaf Nobody is in my way! I look at a blank paper and I imagine the whole image. The space, the objects, the light. I can change the curtains, I think about the kinds of flowers, the direction and intensity of light and how it adds to the emotion. Even the conflicts between the carpet and wallpaper can be used to tell the story of her “waiting”, I imagine what is outside of the scene, buildings or whatever and that adds to her story of loneliness. Even the sounds of the film and the materials in her surrounding helps the viewer to locate her, and the whole atmosphere and mood of the story. If I had to search for a place that have all the elements precisely as I have in mind that is not written in concrete at all, it is just far easier for me to construct these sets. However I do get my ideas from the real places that I am at, like the Hilton Hotel I am at today. I studied the room, the people, the breakfast and the new broom the housecleaning had. A broom should never be new!
Grou Serra With your work, you always try to bring the spectator inside your own world. Would you say that the framing of a photograph is more successful at achieving that goal than other mediums?
Erwin Olaf It could be as photography is an easy medium for our eyes to accept, you don’t have to be trained too much to understand photography at first sight unlike poetry and painting. I use the easily acceptable tools from fashion and commercial photography to drag you into my world. I do it on purpose to tell a more layered story.
Wiel Arets This is a good moment to talk about framing, we had talked about printing and the size constraints with older technology. Nowadays, people want things to be bigger.
Erwin Olaf I just rebuilt my darkroom to go back to printing black and white. I love the combination of old and new technique. Two years ago I made portraits of the Jewish communities in Amsterdam, I had taken the photos digitally but I printed them using the oldest technique which was carbon printing. I had seen carbon printing in the drawers of the Getty Museum, they were so beautiful as though they were printed yesterday. In Amsterdam, they took away about nine-tenth of the Jewish population in the second world war. So I thought I must look for a way for these photos to stay forever, and I found carbon printing. One carbon print was limited in size took 1 or 2 days as it was so delicate, I tried it out but didn’t want to do this for the rest of my life. Then I thought of the silver-bromide printing that I have done for many years until the 90’s so I am reintroducing this back into the studio, it is very meditative and far more tactile and emotional to look at the print. I have just obtained a digital enlarger that enables me to print silver-bromide with digital photos, combining new and old. Although you are limited in your sizes, sizes do matter. [Laughs]
Grou Serra Is the inclusion of other mediums in your work complementary to photography or an answer to its limitations?
Erwin Olaf It is a research process. I made the sculptures with a 3D camera then sent to cararra industries to be made into a sculpture. It is a kind of photography to me as well. The other thing is how do we display our work, is it to build an architecture or a triangular projection, or how to make a montage and experience of viewing the work. It gets boring for me nowadays to just make photographs. So in the upcoming Hotel deVille project I am doing these morphing sets of photo projections along with ultra slow-motion films. I am doing this to keep myself interested in the field of photography, it is also something different than making beautiful pictures without meaning.
Wiel Arets It is also about who is photographing your work. When you talk about an architect, you always think about the photographer who is strongly connected to their work.
Erwin Olaf Oh? And is the image of the architect also very important?
Wiel Arets It is fairly contemporary. Iwan Baan photographs everything but he is now the biggest name in architectural photography.
Erwin Olaf It's also a baggage because nobody know about your beautiful buildings if there are no photos from a certain angle. Because there are ugly and good angles, or do you have buildings that are good with every angle?
Wiel Arets Of course, you said everything is beautiful?
Erwin Olaf Everything has a beautiful angle. [Laughs]